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Future of Marketing

How ad servers will evolve in 2024 and beyond

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February 8, 2024 | 5 min read

With the news that Amazon will be shuttering its ad server offering by the end of 2024, what does the future hold for the industry, asks Simon Thorne, managing director EMEA at Flashtalking by Mediaocean.

A few months ago, the news broke that Amazon would be shuttering its ad server offering by the end of 2024, throwing the future of ad serving itself into uncertainty. 

Amazon has only been operating the service since 2019, when it acquired Sizmek Ad Suite. Is this rapid deprecation the beginning of the end for ad serving, or will it trigger a new wave of ad serving with a bigger and more strategic remit?

The ad server story so far

But how did we get here? Trusted measurement and efficient delivery across online advertising publishers were once the most critical capabilities in the advertising ecosystem. During this time, brands were hesitant to let publishers self-report impressions figures – after all, the publishers have a vested interest in maximizing inventory sales. 

On top of this, marketing teams were struggling to build ad units that would comply with the various non-standard specifications across different publishers. Ad servers addressed this situation twofold – by providing a centralized point to deliver ads from, and an independent way to track how many times ads are served.

However, as is so often the case with digital platforms, the use of ad servers kept expanding until cracks started to show. Firstly, marketers began to be overly reliant on this new source of tracking data. Impressions metrics became woven into conversion metrics, so accurate attribution became a challenge. The last ad you click before buying a product is not necessarily the whole journey – the buying journey is often made up of a long and hidden journey of brand and awareness building. Naturally, this has led to many advertisers over-indexing on conversion, while brand uplift pays the price. 

With more and more walled gardens emerging in the form of closed off, controlled social platforms, it became difficult to maintain truly omnichannel ad serving. Integrations are always available when new platforms emerge, but this often means sacrificing efficiency, as maintaining a unified view of a campaign while reporting back with the granularity that advertisers have come to expect can be impractical, if not impossible.

And ad serving is further complicated by the depreciation of some vital data collection points. Safari, for example, has already stopped using third-party cookies, with Chrome intending to follow suit by the end of 2024. As Google moves towards more automated marketing creation and optimization, and regulatory pressures continue to evolve, it’s clear that technology is changing faster than advertisers’ activation and tracking techniques can keep up with.

End of an era or inevitable evolution?

While many might herald this as the untimely death of the ad server, I think there’s another, more realistic perspective. The ad server was never fit to be a single source of truth for end-to-end campaign data. So, while the increase in walled gardens and the prospect of a cookieless future calls for a major reevaluation of traditional ad servers, the core of their technology remains as relevant as ever. When many think of its death, what they’re really referring to is its transformation into a new, expanded view of the ad server.

This presents an opportunity to reintroduce brand, as well as performance, as a priority for optimization. By investing in creative automation, walled garden integration, cookieless measurement, and dynamic personalization, the ad server can be transformed into an omnichannel creative activation engine. 

As an industry, re-examining our priorities is something that’s been long overdue, and the evolution of ad servers will be a welcome change for advertisers who have not been getting what they truly need. Leading brands and agencies are realizing that the biggest opportunity for incrementality in advertising over the coming years will be with creative optimization, not audience targeting nor bid management. 

Change is natural in any industry, and with walled gardens becoming the rule, rather than the exception, marketers need a new way to meet their age-old need: serving their ads across channels. While ad servers continue to enable this kind of roaming, there are fewer and fewer that can truly operate at scale globally. 

While it’s certain that Amazon shuttering its ad server marks a new chapter in a wider industry story, trying to predict the future in advertising, or really, any sector, has proven impossible in the last couple of unexpected years – take the rapid increase in the use of generative AI as just one example.

While ad servers remain the predominant way of understanding audiences and optimizing creative accordingly, the term “ad server” feels a little insufficient and even misleading. 2024 will likely see ad servers changing where they sit within the overall marketing ecosystem and, if one thing’s for certain, digital advertising will emerge from this change stronger than ever. 

By Simon Thorne (managing director EMEA, Flashtalking by Mediaocean).

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